Rhode Island Smackdown

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Tobin.jpegpatrickken.jpegIn one of those classic New England Irish Catholic manos-a-mano, Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin and U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy have been going at each other, with the congressman (son of the late Sen. Ted) criticizing the bishop for opposing health care reform that doesn’t deny abortion coverage, and the bishop criticizing the congressman for disrespecting the church. And the congressman saying that just because he disagrees with the Catholic hierarchy on abortion doesn’t make him “any less of a good Catholic” and the bishop saying yes it does.

Far be it from me to presume to say what makes a good Catholic, but perhaps it’s worth putting this dispute in the context of what’s been going on in Rhode Island Catholicism. According to the ARIS surveys (here and here), over the past two decades, the proportion of self-identifying Catholics in the most Catholic state in the nation has declined by over 25 percent–from 62 percent in 1990 to 51 percent in 2001 to 46 percent last year. Data from the quadrennial studies done at the University of Akron by John Green show more New England Catholics to be pro-choice than pro-life, with only half of even “high commitment” Catholics falling into the pro-life (as opposed to pro-choice or “moderate”) camp.

Bishop Tobin is evidently part of the small-is-beautiful school of contemporary Catholic thinking, and will help his diocese continue on its current demographic trajectory. Given his views on who is a good Catholic, roughly a quarter of Rhode Islanders would seem to be up to snuff. I’d guess that by 2030, that’ll be the actual size of his flock, if he lives that long.